Back at the Carnival

SACRAMENTO — Democrats owe Arianna Huffington a handsome debt for her performance at the Great Gubernatorial Debate. If she hadn’t been here and had she not kept Arnold Schwarzenegger tied up in relentless guerrilla crossfire, the Terminator would have totally flattened the staggeringly hapless Cruz Bustamante.

The lieutenant governor served himself up like a 200-pound Chinese meal. A half-hour after the debate I couldn’t remember a single complete sentence Cruz might have uttered. I imagine some Democrats, however, did notice his rather tepid opposition to the recall itself and his pointed refusal to associate himself with Governor Davis.

Nor do I have much doubt that Arianna’s labors and Bustamante’s omissions will go unrequited and that way too many Democrats — and even self-styled progressives — are still planning to take the dive for Cruz in 10 days. The fact that Huffington was the only candidate who actually laid out a coherent progressive vision — in her admirable and uncompromising closing statement — will be soundly ignored by legions of liberals who constantly claim they want reform and truly reformist candidates, but then reliably and obediently vote for Big Money human Laundromats like Davis and Bustamante.

But kudos anyway to Arianna for drawing the first blood from Arnold during this campaign. He was clearly fearful of her debating strengths and had, evidently, rehearsed cutting her off and interrupting at every chance. Fair enough, this ain’t badminton. But Arnold let himself get rattled by the Brentwood Populist when she accused him of bullying her as a woman. He took the bait and spewed out that one line that could haunt him in the coming days — that he had a special role ready for Arianna in Terminator 4. After his well-publicized boasting to Entertainment Weekly how it was his idea in Terminator 3 to jam his female rival’s head into a toilet, the retort will not exactly elevate Arnold’s standing among women who might already have some reservations about his attitudes.

Arianna didn’t leave the arena unscathed. She got flustered and far too defensive when Arnold took a swipe at her over her income taxes. With Cruz apparently suffering from his usual narcolepsy, and the excessively polite Green Party candidate, Peter Camejo, seemingly bent on playing patty-cake onstage, the job of spicing up the debate fell inordinately on Arianna’s shoulders. It’s a task she relished, and she will certainly pay a political price, taking a portion of media heat for being too much a provocateur.

Arnold’s overall rating falls somewhere in the B–/C+ range — no higher. Apart from the slip-up with Arianna, he experienced no meltdown. His tone remained far too cocky and arrogant. His style is way too much that of a blaring foghorn, a sustained barrage of run-on sentences “and all those kind of things,” as he’s inclined to say, that intentionally leaves little room for questions, clarifications or two-way exchanges.

But Arnold proved himself to be at least as intelligent and as eloquent as, say, the president of the United States — which in American politics, it seems, is good enough. But mostly, I found Arnold to be a one-note act. Whether it was about health care or the budget or taxes, he had the same answer: “Protect business.” His obsessiveness with promoting a “business-friendly climate” is hardly the stuff of the sort of maverick, independent campaign he once promised. Instead, it’s boilerplate country-club Republicanism rather consistent with the millions he’s raked in in corporate contributions — a greedy practice he also originally vowed to eschew.

And this rather turns the recall on its head. This episode in California history has resonated deeply with the electorate’s disgust toward an unresponsive and captive political system. I doubt many voters wake up in the morning and, looking into the bathroom mirror, ask themselves how the business climate is gonna be today. They’d rather know if they can pay university tuition for their kids, if they’re going to get anything back for the taxes they pay and how breathable the air might be.

Arnold may have well guaranteed his overall viability, but I find it doubtful that he much expanded his base of support. His campaign is still too much about him, and not enough about an angry electorate.

And it was nice to see Tom McClintock. Too bad the guy’s got such Neanderthal social views, a pity that he would privatize everything in sight, as he is obviously a principled and passionate straight shooter who couldn’t give a damn about polls or popularity contests — a rare breed up here in the state capital. He’s also eating up 15 percent or so of the Republican vote — precisely the chunk that Arnold needs to give him a comfortable margin over Cruz. The GOP establishment had cranked up the pressure on McClintock to withdraw in the past week. The steely state senator claims he’ll never say die. Yet, he didn’t so much as lay a glove on Arnold, and vice versa, as the two Republicans carried out an exquisite minuet that avoided any clashes.

Suspicions can now only be heightened that McClintock’s docility is a harbinger of an eventual ceding to Schwarzenegger. The only alternative theory is that McClintock is in for the duration, that he consciously intends to split the GOP vote, sink Schwarzenegger and leave himself well-positioned as the leading Republican candidate for the 2006 contest for governor. The only wrinkle in that scenario is that if McClintock spoils Arnold and helps elect Cruz or retain Davis, there’s gonna be a whole lot of pissed-off Republicans gunning for him. (Once again, Cruz proved himself to be the champion evader of the press. He slunk away after the debate without taking one question from the media. Shame on the coward, or maybe he had to rush to the bank to make an after-hours deposit of Indian money.)


The really good news is how much genuine voter excitement and engagement the debate produced. The scene here on the Sacramento State University campus crackled with carnival fervor. But carnival in the positive sense — that somehow, really for the first time in my lifetime, the usually dreary business of state politics actually mattered in the lives of ordinary people. Live, almost wall-to-wall coverage carried the debate in every TV market in the state as well as nationwide on CNN. More than 400 reporters from around the world crowded into the debate media rooms, and a long line of remote-broadcast tents brightly blossomed in the campus parking lot. Politics should always look like this, and the attention garnered by the face-off ought to once and for all demolish the canard that this recall election is somehow a dirty, illegitimate subversion of the “normal political process.”

One final note: Precisely with this attendant level of excitement around the debate, with two-thirds of likely voters saying that its outcome would meaningfully influence their vote, we all deserved a moderator more competent than the bizarre Stan Statham. Like a late-night carpet-company commercial starring the boss’s girlfriend, the debate sponsor, the California Broadcasters Association, let its goofy and confused chief executive run the panel. Erratic, unfair, at once ineffective and too interventionist, and at all times way above his head, Statham at least admitted at one point that he was getting “dizzy.” No kidding! A former GOP assemblyman who ran an unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor on a program of dividing California up into three separate states, Statham should have been last on the list to chair such a crucial debate.


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